This week's election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pontiff sparked an interesting response from much of the mainstream media in the United States. There was a great deal of angst, and even shock, that the Catholic Church chose a leader who holds to traditional Catholic beliefs. It appeared many were hoping the church would suddenly choose someone filled with positive ideas to move away from all the conservative moral standards Catholics find rooted in their sacred texts, but which seem outlandish to those who have moved on to more progressive thinking.
The yearning of the media during the days leading up to the papal conclave may not have come to fruition, but it helps us consider this moment. You can see the reaction across the channels, but one example may help. For example, take Erin Burnett's comments on CNN, included this bold statement: "The Church helps the poor and the lonely, and I bet there are a lot of people who might return to the Church if it changed." Erin is blunt enough to say what many have thought – that if churches would just get with the times, people would return. But is there any evidence to show this to be the case? In short, no.
This desired capitulation to culture is a familiar refrain. As a matter of fact, this is the story of much of mainline Protestantism in the United States. In the desire to engage culture, several mainline Protestant denominations aligned with culture's values and in a great historic twist of irony, their churches didn't stop shrinking. They shrunk faster.
Regardless of whether or not you believe you are right, as I assume Erin does, the claim that capitulating to the whims of culture will lead to a renaissance in religion has no statistical basis whatsoever. It seems many in the media were hoping for a liberal mainline Protestant as Pope, and shockingly, a Catholic showed up.
Those espousing conservative beliefs considered antiquated by mainstream culture, are often the ones experiencing growth. The Great Awakenings even provide historical precedence for this. In previous religious renaissances it was Baptists and Methodists who saw the explosive growth. Today it is the Pentecostals.
The Pentecostals, according to the National Council of Churches, are one of the few denominations actually growing in the United States. The Assemblies of God grew by 3.99 percent from 2011 to 2012, and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World were up 20 percent from 2011 to 2012. Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a progressive mainline denomination and the tenth largest in the nation, saw a drop of 3.42 percent and the United Church of Christ, a small denomination only getting smaller, decreased in membership by 2.02 percent – and this is in one year, not a decade. The math does not look good.
My friends leading several of these growing Pentecostal denominations will assure you they have not changed their beliefs about controversial issues nor have they sought to downplay their practices, which many find odd and outdated at best. Yet, their churches are growing.
Regarding the Catholic Church, although many former Catholics from the northeastern elite have walked away from their faith, many devout Catholics consider these beliefs not something to easily discard in the name of cultural expediency.
Now, obviously, I am not a Catholic. I am not only a Protestant, but a conservative evangelical one at that. However, I do think the breathless reporting of the mainstream media, surprised that Catholics would choose someone with actual Catholic beliefs, actually shows something more about the media – their desire for religion to evolve, and, at the end of the day, a misguided impression that cultural capitulation will lead to more religious believers.
Moving away from your beliefs neither creates converts nor reverts (those who might return, like an Erin Burnett). It simply downplays what you believe and softens your impact on a society that needs you for what you believed and acted upon in the first place.
I am not a Catholic, and needless to say I disagree when it comes to some of their doctrine. But, even as so many keep saying, "if they would just change, I'd come back," the last thing the Catholic church needs is to capitulate to the culture of the day because, well, they really aren't coming back.
Ask the Episcopalians.